‘It’s almost like I can feel the whole world’
What is the significance of composers performing their own works? It’s nothing new in the Western classical tradition. Many traditions make no distinction between the two roles. You play, you write, you play what you write, you write what you play.
Why, then, do people now talk of ‘composer/performer’ like it’s a new thing? I met a pianist at a party a few months ago. He asked me, ‘So do you do, like, performance stuff, or do you make orchestrations?’ as if one excluded the other.
The question of what it means to be a composer/performer, and of what this category actually is, has been bothering me for a while
It seems as if a new category is emerging in the reception of contemporary music. I started thinking about this topic when reporting from the 2018 Young Nordic Music festival in Bergen. In my own words: ‘Much has been written recently of the rise of the composer/performer and this trend was present at the festival. I counted only four works where the composer took a central role (not just onstage) in the performance.’
If I had included pieces where the composer was onstage, I would have included many more works – such as Tor Anders Eri’s A Last Word (2017), where the composer played synths, or Heidi Hassinen’s Huoli (2017), where Hassinen was operating the electronics. For that matter, I would have to include every single electronic piece, as the composer was often the one ‘performing’ the electronic part (which often accounted to just pressing play). This is not what I mean by ‘composer/performer’.
Similarly, when I reviewed Simon Løffler and Niels Lyhne Løkkegard at the 2018 Gong Tomorrow festival, I found myself reluctant to categorise them as composer/performers. Yes, they were both visibly onstage for their concerts participating in the performance; and yes, they are both primarily composers acting as performers, rather than the other way around (as in Uno Vejse’s Bragi’s Harp from UNM). But they were, essentially, replaceable in their roles. Composer/executor is perhaps a better term.
The obvious starting point
I am also not thinking of so-called ‘performance art’. In recent years, the Pulsar festival at the Royal Danish Academy of Music has collaborated with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to put on student works at a concert in Kunsthal Charlottenborg. There is always a different approach and style between the works by the composers and the works by the fine artists. It’s minor and almost indefinable, but it is there. It goes beyond the issue of score-writing – several works by the fine artists had a musical score, and several works by the composers had no such thing.
Whenever I see her perform, I am struck by the vitality, even necessity, of what she does
The question of what it means to be a composer/performer, and of what this category actually is, has been bothering me for a while, as my own practice has expanded into this area. So I decided to do something about it. I contacted Seismograf with a proposal – three profiles of three artists working in this area. I am not aiming for general overviews of these artists and their works. I’m hoping to clarify what is, for me, a grey area, by examining these three different approaches to the practice of being a (for want of a better term) composer/performer.
I can think of no better case study to start with than Brazilian-born, Denmark-based Marcela Lucatelli. Lucatelli is a force of nature. Trained as a vocalist, her performances are guttural outbursts that push the boundaries of the human voice.
I had seen Youtube videos floating around, but it wasn’t until I first saw Lucatelli at 5e’s Mandagklubben (a weekly free-jazz/improvisation night held in a small venue in Copenhagen’s meatpacking district) that I experienced the full force of her stage presence. Raw, animalistic, uncompromising; all these words are clichés when describing her work. Whenever I see her perform, I am struck by the vitality, even necessity, of what she does. It would be too simple to categorise it as avant-garde vocal performance art (‘crazy person makes crazy sounds’). Something else is happening, and I am determined to find out what it is.
Up the wall
We arrange to meet at Blocs & Walls, a climbing centre set in a repurposed warehouse in Refshaleøen, the old industrial district in Copenhagen. The idea is that participating in some kind of non-musical activity together will not only break the ice (although I have known Marcela for a couple of years), but show a different side of the subject.
I suggested climbing, and Marcela was instantly drawn to the ‘abandoned industrial’ aspect of the venue. Furthermore, I am terrified of heights, and mildly terrified of Lucatelli, so it seems like a good fit.
‘I thought you’d have climbed loads of trees,’ I say. ‘You’re, like, Marcela Lucatelli’
From the very beginning my expectations are subverted, as she reveals she has never climbed a tree before. ‘I thought you’d have climbed loads of trees,’ I say. ‘You’re, like, Marcela Lucatelli.’
‘There’s a lot to it,’ is her reply.
Climbing is roughly as terrifying as I expect. I try and scramble up the wall as fast as possible to trick myself into thinking that speed equals bravery – something that does not escape Marcela’s notice when she points out, ‘There’s something with James and speed.’
It’s to my detriment, as I am unable to make it up the last exercise, having to give up about a metre from the top with all my muscle energy spent. Marcela is more successful. The laser focus demonstrated in her performances is apparent here – as our instructor Joakim points out, even when she is resting and supported by the ropes, she clings close to the wall.
Setting your own goal
There is more to climbing than I had assumed. Rather than freely going up and down, we are assigned what’s called ‘problems’ – essentially, routes up the wall, where your choice of hand or foot hold is limited by colour. Especially with bouldering (lower walls with no supportive ropes), this makes it into a mental as well as physical exercise, as you have to figure out the best way up your assigned route, with the time limitation of how long you can hold up your own body weight.
This ‘problems’ system does not seem to fit Lucatelli. ‘It is a bit frustrating,’ she says. ‘The aim is to do “that”. But I don’t want to do it! I really love the limitations but I like to set my own goal.’
‘I am able to detach myself … it’s about doing what has to be done’
In the same way, she talks about her music in terms of ‘tasks’ and ‘research’. Performing, and then composing, is a task she has set herself – on her own terms.
After we’re done climbing, we head for the electroacoustic studio at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. ‘I have a certain trajectory in life,’ she says in the studio. ‘I started studying singing for the sake of understanding how I could relate to my body in a way that would have some kind of discipline but also relate to me aesthetically.’ The scientific method, applied to composition.
For someone who is so close to the music they make (to a point of inseparability), Lucatelli speaks with an almost cool detachment, and a willingness to set her ego aside: ‘I am able to detach myself … it’s about doing what has to be done. What makes sense for this piece – it’s from the piece to me, not from me to the piece.’
All out there
I think of Lucatelli as a researcher, testing limits and boundaries, starting with herself and with her own voice. But there seems to me to be more, much more, than pushing herself through performance. The performance is merely a tool through which Lucatelli interacts with the world, examines it, holds it up to the light.
She could use any method to do this, but she has chosen music. ‘I researched a lot of things. Theatre, dance … when I was a teenager, I was super brainy, I was very into philosophy and things like that, then I had to go through something with the body, and then the singing came. Then I figured out I could put all these things together. I always consider all the options. I put everything on the table.’
For me, these kind of ‘perfect moments’, where everything combines together in a bizarre and unexpected but satisfying matter, at exactly the right time, are Lucatelli’s trademark
Lucatelli’s practice, then, combines many things. She has a very strong stage presence, and is able to work herself (and the audience) into a frenzied, trance state with ease. But this is just one weapon in a formidable arsenal. Lucatelli’s strong sense of timing is another.
We discuss a performance of hers from 2017 called Off-Off-Human, with ensemble Mocrep. The piece consisted of a series of studies, with the naked performers (including Lucatelli herself) interacting with each other in a succession of étude-like tableaux, each with their own rules. For example, running at each other and snarling, or having a nonsense-conversation through microphones.
One moment in particular stuck in my mind. At one point, Lucatelli set off a smoke bomb in the room. The following ‘sketch’ consisted of all the performers gathered around a giant rum ball, taking bites. Because of where I was in the room, the smell from the smoke bomb hit my nostrils at the exact moment the first performer took a bite, resulting in a bizarre piece of cognitive dissonance where smell collided with visual and nothing matched up in the best way possible.
Perfect timing, infinite possibilites
Of course, this is easily dismissible as a fluke. If I had been standing anywhere else in the room perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. But that misses the point. Maybe the moment was not choreographed (in fact it certainly wasn’t, as she told me when I brought it up). But the possibility of such a moment is there, present in the space opened up by Lucatelli’s creative choices.
For me, these kind of ‘perfect moments’, where everything combines together in a bizarre and unexpected but satisfying matter, at exactly the right time, are Lucatelli’s trademark.
‘If you don’t feel happy practicing too many hours, then don’t do it. There are infinite things you can do’
‘I think the thing I love most about music and performing, and composing also, is to research the timing of things. I’m really addicted to it,’ she says, when I venture that perhaps everything she does is first and foremost about time and timing. And just as more ‘traditional’ performers will practice their scales and arpeggios, Lucatelli has developed her own way of practicing this art of playing with time. ‘It’s not connected to doing and redoing something physical, but to finding my own relationship to the material and the cultural situation we are experiencing it in.’
Visualisation and internalisation of the performance, then, becomes the most important thing – rather than physically practicing every note. ‘You learn how to practice for that, without spending five hours. It’s great to find your own practice. You don’t need to do anything, you need to find what you need. People try too hard to fit into categories. If you don’t feel good, if you don’t feel happy practicing too many hours, then don’t do it. There are infinite things you can do. Don’t do something that makes you bad in your soul.’
Marcela and the monument
This sense of infinite possibility is keenly felt in her work, even when there are the strictest limits imposed. Lucatelli can do more with just her voice and a microphone than most composers can do with an orchestra.
I tell her that, no matter what she does, no matter how many limits she puts on herself, it ends up feeling massive, even monumental. She replies, ‘There is something about me and the world, because I really feel this; I feel something massive. It’s almost like I can feel the whole world.’
‘I can feel a huge abyss – I think it’s under me’
‘How do you see the world?’ I ask her. I don’t mean how do you interact with the world, I mean how do you experience it. Life. What’s going on?
The energy in the room changes as she thinks of her answer, for a long time. Eventually, she replies, softly and with her eyes closed, ‘I feel something very deep. I don’t know why. I can feel a huge abyss – I think it’s under me. That space makes me super aware of sensorial input and interactions. I have a lot of space in my being to observe the world. In my personal life I engage in a lot of things just to see how it is, and I have no fear … it can come to very radical situations. I take life as an anthropological experience – very detached in a way.’
Superhuman, owerflowing, dazzling, abandoned
We play some music together – I take my saxophone and we improvise a short free-jazz style duet. I spend the whole time wondering if I’m doing it right. When we finish, Marcela wants to play more, ‘But this time I want you to sing.’ I flip through my notebook and see a transcription I had made a few months previously of the melody line of the first movement from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, so I decide to try and sing it from memory. This seems to work much better.
Later Marcela describes the improvisation as ‘composer-cute – the form was so perfect, only two composers would have improvised this way’. I think of Messiaen’s description of his Turangalîla symphony: ‘superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, abandoned’, and how this description could easily apply to Marcela’s work as well.
‘I engage in a lot of things just to see how it is, and I have no fear … it can come to very radical situations’
A couple of weeks later, I attend a performance by Lucatelli with her trio EHM at the Peryton gallery in central Copenhagen. It takes place in the basement gallery, in and amongst the current sculpture installation. Along with the trio’s improvisation, visual artist Caroline Bittencourt projected some slides from her curated collection on the wall behind.
At one point early on, Marcela placed her hand onto the wall, seconds before a slide of the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer statue was put on. Marcela’s hand ended up directly on top of the heart of the statue. This combined with the scratchy, jittery music from the trio, the rainy weather outside, the beer in my hand, the oddness of the venue, the thoughts from the previous interview – another ‘perfect moment’ that lives in the space Lucatelli has opened up.
I ask her if she intended to interact with the slides – she didn’t, of course. I don’t think it matters. It happened anyway. Somehow Lucatelli’s detached, research-focused, anthropological approach allows these possibilities, where the performance rises above the minutiae and springs into life in front of you. It becomes more than what it is. The trick, if there is one, lies in the invention – the creation of a new practice from first principles.
The British poet and playwright T.S. Eliot wrote of tradition: ‘It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.’ What I have learned from Lucatelli’s approach amounts to much the same thing – experience everything, decide for yourself, open up spaces for performer and audience alike. It comes from you – but it’s bigger than you. It’s massive, in fact.